Darrovan’s slow inhale sounded like a rush of thunder in his ears. His muscles trembled with terror.
What’s going to happen once the doors open?
The elevator’s darkness, only lit by the soft red glow of the display panel, didn’t help. His scales shivered, and the razor sharp claws of his fingers extended in agitation. He had never been prone to claustrophobia, but the dim confines set him on edge.
Oh, God, what did I do? Why are they doing this?
The lift put out the softest of hums, and he could scarcely feel the movement. Only the slight tug on his insides gave any indication of descent.
A soft chime notified him of the car’s arrival, and the motion stilled. His breath quickened. The doors parted. A flood of blinding light rushed forward. Darrovan threw up a hand to shield his eyes. His claws retracted. He blinked several times as he adjusted to the bright environment.
“Step out,” a crisp male voice said. The voice startled him, and he almost yelped. His claws extended in fright, an evolutionary reaction. He fought for control and retracted them. It was bad manners to be seen with them elongated. The sound of movement just beyond Darrovan’s vision drew his attention.
Squinting, and with his heart hammering, Darrovan complied. His steps were slow, timid. Once free of the elevator, the doors hissed closed behind him. His head jerked at the sound.
No going back now, I’m trapped.
“Who are you?” that same voice snapped.
Darrovan spun back to the front, spying a helmeted individual to the left. His visor reflected a darker image of Darrovan’s disheveled form. The doorman stood behind a podium, covered in pale blue attire that resembled a hazard suit more than armor or dress code. A finger of worry wiggled its way through Darrovan’s gut.
I was right, they’re going to kill me!
With riveted eyes, he tried to peer beyond the tinted visor, but couldn’t discern any visual cues. Anonymity shrouded the figure. A gray badge hanging over his left breast pocket snared Darrovan’s skittish attention.
“Credentials,” the other said, holding out a hand.
What’s he talking about?
Darrovan stammered, “I–I don’t have any.” His eyes flashed beyond the other person, soaking in what little details he could see. The chamber’s appearance seemed as hospitable as the doorman.
The interior stretched out like a hangar and gave the impression of a stale, crisp environment. The stark white room was almost square, a good twenty paces long and nearly as wide. A large fountain with a broad base gurgled at the other end of the room. Potted plants and trees formed a ring around it. Darrovan wasn’t sure, but the room appeared to extend beyond the other side of the decoration.
The doorman snapped his fingers. Darrovan’s head swiveled back to him. “What do you mean you don’t have credentials? Everyone is supposed to.”
The faceless individual pulled on the gray emblem attached to his shirt and pressed a button on the desk. A hiss sounded from above. Darrovan’s head snapped up. The ceiling parted, and two massive guns dropped down. They turned, zeroing on him. The multi-barrel weapons began to spin.
Oh, shit. Why are they doing this? Why am I here?
“All visitors are required to hand over credentials upon entrance to be verified–”
“Talcen,” another voice called out, this one from a female.
Her snapping stride preceded her arrival. She stepped into view, materializing behind one of the many pillars that lined the room. Similar to the doorman’s appearance, she wore the same pale blue color, but hers likened to that of a jumpsuit with a charcoal gray collar and cuffs on her sleeves. Her rosy complexion softened the white monotony around them. Like the first man, a small gray badge pinned to her torso was the only adornment on her clothing. Darrovan could make out the faint hologram of her appearance on the upper right corner as she stopped in front of him.
She flashed a smile towards Darrovan. “Sorry about that.” She gazed at the first man, Talcen. “We’ve been expecting Dr. Weiv’s arrival. You can stand down.”
“He doesn’t have credentials,” Talcen said with a flat and monotone voice like he had a limited vocabulary.
What the hell is up with him and credentials?
The woman stood straighter. “Emergency orders override protocol. I’ve cleared him for entrance, so that’s the last we should hear about it.”
Talcen glanced from her to Darrovan. The dark visor centered on him for a moment longer than necessary for a cursory glance. Darrovan’s throat constricted.
Why is it so hard to swallow?
“As you wish,” Talcen said at last. He swiped his card and pushed an unseen button again. The weapons stopped spinning, swiveled, and rose into the ceiling. The plate hissed closed behind them, camouflaging their existence.
The woman turned her attention back to Darrovan and flashed an apologetic smile. “Sometimes, I think the military puts out nothing but simpletons and drones. Sorry for his zealous nature. He takes security too seriously.” She dipped her head. “I’m Sheedah, Head of Operations in the facility.”
She extended a hand.
Not dead, not dead.
Darrovan reached out with a trembling hand. “Pleasure to meet you,” he said, his voice tremulous.
“Follow me.” Sheedah moved deeper into the room, towards the fountain. He hurried after her. His legs wobbled with fatigue and the trepidation of knowing how close he came to dying. He swallowed, thanking whoever looked out for him for the stay of execution. He had already thought once tonight he was going to die. The run-in with Talcen made it two.
Darrovan peeked backward after a few paces and noted Talcen’s visor turned in their direction, watching him go. It sent a shiver up his spine. “Don’t you worry about insulting the …”
“Sentry? Military member?” She shook her head. “No. Talcen isn’t a people person, never mingles. People have been trying to get him to open up for years, but he never does. I don’t ever recall seeing him without that helmet on.” She sighed. “He’s always on duty.”
Darrovan shook his head at the news, trying to comprehend all the implications. “I’m sorry, did you say years?”
Sheedah dipped her head in acknowledgment. “Yes. Many of us have been down here a long time, but not as long as Lias.”
“Yes, the old man of the dome as we call him. He’s the one who sent for you.”
They reached the fountain, and a soft hum of music filtered through hidden speakers, hushed string instruments ranging in timbre and bass. Sheedah paused, her arm gesturing to the frothing water. “Many of us come here when the walls feel like they’re closing in.” She gestured up to the ceiling, and he followed the movement. “The ceiling is one giant monitor that often carries the same color and mannerisms as the sky outside. Normally, it’s on a bright, cheery setting, but you can catch the rain and snow at times.” She smiled. “I don’t mind seeing them, but I don’t miss the weather.”
Darrovan blinked a few times and shook his head again.
What does this have to do with anything?
He almost died, and she acted as if nothing was wrong. Who were these people? Where was he?
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not sure why I am here. I was dragged out of bed, rushed from my home in the middle of the night and thrown into–”
“Yes, I know,” she spoke in a soothing voice. She held up a hand to stop him, her dark eyes widening. Her magenta complexion darkened, a sign of embarrassment. “All will be explained in due time.”
Irritation flared through him, stifling the disquiet from earlier. “No, sorry, that’s not good enough. I want to know–”
“We can’t discuss it here,” Sheedah said, her eyes flitting over to Talcen, who still watched them. “Not everyone has clearance for such things.” She tapped the gray card on her chest. “We’ve all got key cards to signify who is authorized. You’ve got to learn the colors.” She jerked her head in a direction behind her and to the left. “Come on, there’s a lot to learn and discuss.”
Darrovan suppressed a sigh. He almost refused to go any further until he got answers, but Sheedah was moving away, and he didn’t want to be left with Talcen. Darrovan glanced back at the military member.
Just my luck, he’d be trigger happy, too.
He followed his guide. Today couldn’t be any more bizarre. When he went to sleep, he hadn’t expected a home invasion. At first, he thought he was being kidnapped, but who would kidnap a professor of metaphysics and alien theory? His second inclination had been the authorities had come to seize him for heresy. He wouldn’t put it past the fascist government to silence him for dissent. But the captors turned out to be military, and he wasn’t entirely sure that was any better.
In the panic of the moment, when they encircled him in his bedroom with weapons drawn, they stuffed an envelope in his coat pocket, and threw a sack over his head. On the ride over, they gave strict instructions to not open it before he arrived. He should’ve known then they weren’t going to kill him, but he didn’t have any expectations of how executions played out.
“The badges,” Sheedah said, breaking into his thoughts as they walked, “represent the level of clearance. The white areas of the dome are open to everyone of any clearance. All hallways are white, but the rooms attached may not be, so no wandering. The green badges access only the green spaces, and the same for the other colors.”
“Yes, in order of clearance level, they are green, yellow, red, and blue. Gray is for administrators and has blue clearance. Black for the overseer and those of the highest clearance. Conversely, a higher color has the clearance to be privy of everything below.”
Darrovan remembered her gray insignia and her title. “So, who’s got a black badge?”
“Lias, the old man of the dome, and a handful of others.”
“But not you? Aren’t you the Head of Operations?”
She shot a wistful, sidelong smile at him. “Yes, I am, and no, not yet.”
The doors parted as they approached, and they entered the hallway beyond. The first doorframe on the left glowed green. Darrovan cast a glance down the hall and noted the others were green as well. Several rows of tubes ran the length of the passagewayand over the doorframes, the bottom one glowed green, too.
“In here.” She pointed to the door. “We’ll get you access.” Darrovan stepped inside and expected another sentry like Talcen, but the room remained devoid of any lifeforms. White, hard plastic chairs lined the wall near the door. The room was almost free of adornment save for a potted plant in the far corner, and a painting of a ship on high seas. A receptacle station sat in the middle, its display coming to life as it detected movement within the room.
“Please insert your badge,” it said as he neared it.
“I don’t have one.”
“Please place your hand on the screen. We will take a DNA scan.”
DNA? Oh God, they’re going to put me in a system, track all my movements.
Darrovan cast a glance at Sheedah, who nodded encouragement. With a sigh and grudging reluctance, he pressed a hand to the display.
“Welcome, Professor Darrovan Wiev.”
His brow twitched. “How did–?”
“Please open the envelope in your possession at this time,” the terminal said.
The annoyance Darrovan pushed down earlier rose again. There were too many unanswered questions. Where was he? Why was he here? How did they have his DNA in their databanks already? How did the terminal know he had an envelope?
He reached inside the coat’s pocket and pulled out the crumpled paper. It was soft like the insides were coated with bubble wrap. Angry red slash marks covered the edge of the sleeve. In bold print, a warning sprawled across the surface. “Attn: Dorrovan Wiev. For Official Use Only. Do Not Tamper.”
He held the wrapping to the light, finding the edge of the paper inside, if there was any–he didn’t see one–and tore the envelope’s end. Reversing the packet, the contents dumped into his waiting hand.
A small black card encased in hardened transparisteel rested in his palm. Sheedah inhaled. He looked up, finding her eyes wide.
“I expected a red, maybe blue, but never black.” That finger of worry grew into a shard of anxiety and stabbed him in the gut. What was he doing here? Why all the cloak and dagger?
“Please place your badge on the screen,” the terminal prompted.
He slapped the identification on the display, and the monitor flashed a few times.
“Accepted. Authorization level: Black. Access granted to all areas of the facility. If your badge is lost or stolen, please report it to the nearest wall-comm unit. Your misplaced card will be locked out, and a new one will be made for you. Be advised that all information discussed must be done in the appropriate designated areas. Enjoy your stay.”
The screen went dark, and Darrovan picked up the token with a groan. “What? Is this place a resort or something? Seems more like a hospital or a prison.”
“In some ways it’s a resort,” Sheedah said, her voice soft with a touch of envy. “There’s an entertainment level for off-time. Having amenities lets people unwind.”
“Alright,” he said, tapping the badge in his hand. He rolled his eyes. “I have access. So, tell me what’s going on.”
She shook her head. “Not yet. We are in a green room.” She beckoned for him to follow and turned for the door. He clenched his fist, wadded up what was left of the envelope, and stuffed it into the right side pocket.
In the hallway, Sheedah continued. “You must wear your identification at all times. For now, just carry it in your hands. When we come up to a door, hold it up for the cameras to read. It won’t be an issue much longer. We’ll give you some new clothes, and you can attach it to the attire.”
He stopped in the middle of the hallway. “Wait, hold on,” he said. She turned and gave a quizzical look. “Change of clothes? Exactly how long do you expect me to stay here?”
The speakers overhead crackled to life with a faint hum. “As long as necessary, Professor Wiev.”
Darrovan scanned up at the sound of the smooth, male voice, searching for the origin. He didn’t find the speakers, but he did find a small, almost unnoticeable alcove where the ceiling met the wall.
That’s just great. I’m being stalked by Big Brother.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Sheedah answered. “That is Lias, the Chief Executive.” She peered down the hall. “It’s just a little further to the lift, and then we can answer all your questions.”
Another elevator. The last one he used didn’t inspire confidence, and when he exited, Talcen held him at gunpoint. What awaited on the other side of the next one?
“What if I say no?” Darrovan countered, a small sliver of defiance rising within him.
“That would be unwise,” Lias said over the speaker, “and I’ll just have Talcen deliver you to me.”
Great. Talcen’s not only the doorman but an enforcer.
Sheedah took a step closer and dropped her voice. “Please, it’s only a little further.”
“How do I know I’m not marching to my death or detainment?”
“We wouldn’t go through all this trouble to kill you, Professor Wiev,” Lias said.
A chuckle rose from the speakers. “Killing you would be cheaper. No, no, we need your mind intact, and your cooperation.”
Further down the hall, the doors to the lift parted. A soft golden glow shined across the reflective, polished floor.
“Please?” Sheedah coaxed.
With a sigh, Darrovan followed her to the lift. She entered, and he stepped in behind her. Darrovan glanced at the buttons inside. Thirteen floors were listed, and the glow around the first floor lit up. The doors closed, and they ascended.
A plethora of scenarios flooded through him. While Lias assured they didn’t mean him harm, how could he trust the voice? He had to admit, it was a somewhat convoluted way to kill him. The personnel who invaded his home could’ve dispatched with him, shot him while he slept, staged it as a robbery gone wrong. The list was endless.
But what worried him the most was the talk about needing his mind intact. What did that even mean? If anything, it sounded like an experiment from a crazed scientist. The image of a laser cutting into his skull to extract his brain didn’t help the rising anxiety.
When the doors parted again, a dark room lay beyond.
Yeah, nothing creepy about that.
There was ample light, but the black floors and walls gave the impression of little illumination. Unlike all the other rooms he had seen thus far, this one spanned out in a circular fashion. Numerous glass panes broke up and relieved the darkness. Light flooded in from beyond. Tubes of different hues pulsed around the room, the same colors as the badges.
“Welcome to the observatory,” Lias called from somewhere within.
Darrovan stepped out of the elevator and felt Sheedah stepping with him. He gave a quick glance at her, noting she wasn’t armed.
Well, that’s something.
Inside, the black floor gleamed with a polished luster. Most of the desks mirrored the floor but with charcoal gray edges. The running lights near the floor and high above glowed, washing the room in a prism-like ambiance.
Darrovan stepped further into the room, turning, taking in the view. Monitors of all sizes with displays he could only guess at the meaning of surrounded the entire room. Workstations with chairs pushed under the desks stood aligned in military precision. Still, despite the orderly appearance, the place screamed cluttered.
He stepped closer to a monitor, this one displaying a global map in two-dimension. Lines crisscrossed the surface in different colors. Red, blue, white, yellow, green, all the colors of the badges, and more. He even spied a purple line where red and blue converged.
“They are trunk lines for optic cables,” Sheedah advised from behind him.
A noise drew his attention, and he turned to the center of the room. A short, balding man with a cane hobbled into view. Darrovan’s eyes drew to the long, wispy beard he sported. Its length attested to the dedication Lias had. His ethnicity wasn’t known for robust facial hair. His scales gleamed a touch too oily to be healthy, and their once-brilliant red sheen had paled to a faded pink. Indeed, Sheedah hadn’t been lying when she proclaimed Lias as the old man of the dome.
When Lias came to a stop in front of Darrovan, he planted the cane in front of him and extended a greeting. “I trust you have many more questions now.”
The professor didn’t sense any hostility from the man, and his scent implied as much. If anything, he impressed a genial and eager attitude.
Darrovan nodded, his gaze sweeping in a slow arch across the chamber. “What is this place?”
“A restricted and covert department,” Lias began. “It was first a top-secret military base long ago in the Geban Wars. They relinquished the facility, and it was bought up by private companies, or so the story goes. A private business did manage to buy up the underground facilities before the military swooped in and bought up everything topside. They used shell companies, of course. They let the remains of the base fall into disuse. Eventually, time and covert destruction did the rest.”
“Geban Wars?” Darrovan echoed. “That was what? Some three-hundred years ago?”
“Three-hundred and seven to be exact,” Lias corrected, his finger lifting off the cane for emphasis.
“So, what happened to the private company?”
“Hmm? Oh, well, they were bought out by another shell company. So, the military has had this place ever since they ‘relinquished’ control.”
Darrovan shook his head, flabbergasted. “But why?”
“Appearances had to be kept,” Sheedah slipped into the conversation. “After the Geban Wars and what they had to do to ensure resounding victory, well, public opinion soured against the military. The government offered up this base as a scapegoat.”
“And now we operate in secret,” Lias finished. He waved a hand. “As you can see, the interior isn’t as old as the topside. It’s been refurbished with the latest technology. We are a state-of-the-art complex.”
Darrovan let out a long sigh and shook his head. “Alright, so what does that have to do with me, and why am I here?” His lips thinned. “You could’ve picked up the phone and invited me instead of scaring me to death.”
“No, we couldn’t,” Sheedah commented. “The government is tapping your phone.”
Anger and fear welled up within him. The government was keeping tabs on him? Why? Surely his profession wasn’t deemed as dangerous or inciting to dissenters. Paranoia flooded him. How long had they been listening? What had he said on the line that could be construed as dissidence? What caused them to start tapping his phone?
Lias cocked his head. “Do you remember reading about that catastrophe during the early years of space exploration? Something about how they captured a small meteor and brought it back for testing?”
Darrovan nodded, still too numb to speak.
Shit, maybe they will kill me after all.
“That was here.”
He blinked, the words registering. “Here?”
Lias nodded. “Oh yes, quite calamitous. Killed the entire research team in the explosion.”
“This place looks and sounds like the embodiment of bad luck.”
“It never happened,” Sheedah explained.
Darrovan’s eyes widened, then narrowed as he glanced between them. “What do you mean? The explosion? The meteor? What?”
“Oh, no,” Lias said, “that happened. The explosion really did kill all those scientists, but there was never a meteor.”
A short silence filled the air between them, and curiosity prickled Darrovan’s chest. “Alright, what was it?”
“We don’t know,” Lias admitted.
Darrovan crossed his arms. “Really? Or you just can’t say?”
Lias shrugged. “Both, perhaps.” The short, old man eyed Sheedah for a moment. “Would you excuse us, darling?”
Sheedah dipped her head. “Of course. I’ll prepare the professor’s room. Send him down once you’ve finished.”
“That would be wonderful, thank you,” Lias said. Darrovan watched her go. Once Sheedah entered the elevator and left, Lias continued. “She can’t be privy to this conversation. It requires level black clearance after all, but something did happen here. How and why has yet to be determined. Ever since that fateful day, the miasma has remained.”
Darrovan blinked. “I’m sorry, what? A miasma?”
“That’s what most of the other scientists call it.” Lias cleared his throat. “Some are far more superstitious and think it’s a nexus of spirits come back to haunt the living. Others theorize it’s the remains of some government experiment gone wrong.” Lias hefted the cane and rolled it in his fingers, eyeing the handle that resembled their world. “I call it The Dark Portal.”